After this weekend's games finish up, I'll post my first audio "SLC5" segment which will go around the conference quickly in order to keep SFA fans in touch with the other 11 schools gunning for Southland Conference bragging rights. Today, we'll bring three particular schools to the forefront since conference play begins Friday when the Chilly Fillmore's SFA Invitational cranks up in Shelton Gym.
Our first three conference opponents this year are Sam Houston, Northwestern State and Central Arkansas. Let's look a little closer and throw out a few opinions about these three teams in order to get prepared for Friday night.
Sam Houston State
Last Year: 15-17, 9-7 SLC (5th Seed in Tournament, Lost in 1st round to UTA, 3-1)
Key Returners: Virtually all including Carli Kolbe (OH), Kim Black (MB), Kelli Stewart (OH), Kaylee Hawkins (UTIL) and Kym Loving (S)
Key Additions: Just one in Kendall Cleveland (OH) who transferred from Arkansas.
Key Losses: None
This team was picked 6th in the coaches' poll and 7th in the SID poll for 2011. I think that's probably two slots too low. In fact, as much as it may pain Purple Nation, I think Sam Houston is a dark horse in the conference race. This is a very veteran focused squad. There were basically no changes in personnel from 2010 to 2011. The team loses no key players, gets a year of experience under virtually every starters' belt and adds Cleveland to the mix and they get picked to drop from 5th? Nah, that doesn't make any sense. Plus, Cleveland is not just a token transfer add. She's started every match this year for the Bearkats and with Kolbe nursing an ankle issue, Cleveland currently leads the team in attacks. I would have picked Sam to finish 4th and I think they pose an interesting test for SFA on Friday.
They have played a common opponent in North Texas and they won 3-1 on the road. Now, most of us agree our match in Denton was a disaster at the end of a long road trip. So, SFA getting swept may not be the fairest of comparisons, but still Sam hit .256 and had 12 team blocks against UNT whereas we only managed a .108 clip and half as many blocks.
The thing about Sam Houston is that they are well coached, strong at virtually every position and fairly deep. Hawkins can play a front row slot or libero. Black and Haley Neisler hold down the middle positions well, Kolbe, Cleveland, Hawkins, Stewart and Camille Alfaro form a deep unit on the outside. When Hawkins isn't in the off-colored jersey - which has been true of late, Jamie Haas can step in.
Now...let's make things clear: If Kolbe doesn't play this weekend it changes things significantly. At the seasons' start, you wouldn't be able to make much of a complaint if someone predicted she's be the league POY for 2011. When Kolbe is healthy, she is as dangerous a hitter as we have in the SLC. She's a treat to watch especially since she is a force from anywhere on the court. She can be standing a foot inside the back line and rear back and smack a shot with a full swing to any spot on the opposing side.
Prediction: A Toss Up in Five Sets.
Last Year: 13-16, 4-12 SLC (Did not make SLC Tournament)
Key Returners: None, this team lost every one of significance.
Key Additions: Unknown, the team completely turned over.
Key Losses: I think you get it by now.
This team plays basically 8 kids and of the seven starters, six of them are Freshman. Go back and read that sentence again.
This very well could be the least experienced volleyball team in the nation at the DI level. I just didn't have the energy to try and research it. But, here are some numbers... and again these are NOT typos: MC Bottles has three letters at SFA. Northwestern returns four letters on their ENTIRE team. Across the entire 2011 team, there were only 7 NCAA starts represented coming into the year.
This club hasn't had a winning season in any of these kids' lifetime. Again, that isn't a typo. The husband-wife coaching team of Hugh and Stephanie Hernesman is starting from scratch. Here you go: 12 players consisting of 9 freshman, two sophomores and one junior (poor Nicole Hajka must feel like a grandma). Hajka - the teams' lone upperclassman has half of the letters on the squad and killed 16 balls last year. Have I mentioned I'm not making any typographical errors, here.
Look, you can't judge this team in 2011. You can't judge it in 2012. The next time Northwestern State Volleyball deserves a serious look in terms of the program making strides is 2013 or so. I'm sure that the Hernesman's have given plenty of rah-rah speeches to to rally the troops, but the truth is the team can't be expected to do much other than show up and play hard. After a few years of seeing what these new recruits have to offer, it's possible the Demons can start talking about moving up a notch in the conference.
Hey, the team won 13 games last year compared to only three in 2009. But again, the athletes who helped make those strides are gone. There is one interesting find in their early schedule: They beat UL-Lafayette in their most recent match by a score of 3-1. A few days earlier, ULL had disposed of Lamar 3-1. Lamar was picked to finish fourth in the SLC race and even got a few first place votes. Now, just like the UNT/SFA/SHSU issue, these single common opponent things aren't always meaningful, but I found it interesting nonetheless. You gotta root for them in general, right? They've been down for so long, we shouldn't constantly kick them. Let's see if they can make strides in the next couple years.
So far in 2011? 2-8 with a team hitting percentage below .100 while getting out-blocked nearly two to one. Hey, I learned from their Facebook page that they just re-lacquered their floor! Ok, that was an excuse to use the word "lacquered" and I just admitted I read NWLA Volleyball's Facebook page. Let's move on.
Prediction: Sweep. Make sure and have plenty of pizza. Mid-week game vs. NWLA? Ugh. Do we have to?
Last Year: 29-7, 15-1 SLC (Lost to UTSA in the SLC Tournament Championship Game)
Key Returners: The majority of their starters including: Jessica Nagy (MB), Jessica Hays (OH), Taylor Hammonds (MB), Marissa Collins (S) and Cristin Curl (L)
Key Additions: Time will tell. A few newcomers have made spot starts, but haven't put up anywhere near impressive numbers.
Key Losses: Chloe Smith - three time SLC Player of the year and quite possibly the best player the conference has ever seen. Exaggeration? Try this one for size: She is the only player in conference history to win the Player of the Year three times and the only player in Southland history ACROSS ALL SPORTS to be named both Player of the Year three times and Student-Athlete of the Year three times. I'll state the obvious: You can't come close to replacing her.
In addition to losing Smith, UCA also lost head coach David McRoberts to the University of Tulsa. Well, so at least we know he won't win SLC Coach of the Year this year. He wasn't the right choice for the award last year( and click here too), but he got it anyway. The David McFatrich (former McRoberts assistant) era has begun and well, that's not going so hot given that they have already lost one less match in 2011 than they did all of last year.
This club was picked 1st in the coaches poll and 2nd by the SID's. They are certainly still a stacked club with all those returners, but I think I'd have picked them 3rd. I think I would have gone: Texas State, UTSA, UCA, SHSU and then throw us, UTA and Lamar in a pot and draw out cards for 5th, 6th and 7th.
UCA has played nine matches as of this writing and already been swept five times. Now, to be fair, UCA has had a couple of tough clubs on their schedule and they (incredibly) play their first 16 games this season on the road. UCA's home opener is in October! Wow. Before hosting the conference tournament, which won't be on their usual small gym floor, they will only have 9 total home games. Of those nine regular season home games, five of them are in a row. How's that for goofy scheduling? They have three home stands all year. That's it.
They play in the weak Eastern side of the Southland and so they will surely benefit from not having to play Texas State, UTSA, Sam Houston, SFA, Lamar and UTA twice. That may have factored into their pre-season rankings by the coaches and SID's.
Regular readers will know that I am a huge Jessica Hays fan. Something is going on with her as she didn't play in UCA's recent tournament appearance in Oxford, MS. Not sure if that is an injury, illness or coaches decision (I'd doubt the latter). Hays led the conference last year in kills per set, Collins led in assists per set and Nagy led in hitting percentage. Oh, and statistically speaking... Hays is the best server in the conference. By far.
With all those weapons, UCA is bound to be good. But, the coaching turnover and the loss of Smith are going to put a few chinks in the armor. Was the loss to UTSA in the 2010 tournament title game a tell-tale sign of a possible fade from dominance. I think so, but not by much. They'll be in the hunt, but they've got plenty of company. It's a good year for them to host the tournament. They'll need the boost of having the most fans in the gym now whereas last year you felt confident in picking them to get to the final game on the road.
McFatrich is someone I'd like to interview for the blog. Maybe he'll agree to a short chat when they come over.
Prediction: The Hays situation is an X-factor. I expect a dogfight, but one we might have a tough time coming out of unscathed. I'm not sure we beat both SHSU and UCA, but it would be a great, great sign if we did.